Small beer should be a lot bigger

19 September, 2008

Graham Holter seeks a diagnosis on the ailing beer category - and a prescription for a cure

What is happening to beer? The latest stats point to a 5% decline in volumes in the year to Aug 9, which is depressing enough, but in the on-trade Nielsen reports

the figure is 9%. Poor weather, a weakening economy and rising duty are the usual suspects whenever these kinds of numbers are discussed, but perhaps there's an even grimmer reality. Perhaps people are simply going off beer.

In the off-trade, the picture is a little healthier, but it isn't enough to compensate for the on-trade collapse. Volumes and sales value are up a modest 2%, which is respectable enough in the circumstances but hardly evidence of a sector with a spring in its step. With wine and spirits performing significantly better, many are questioning whether the beer industry has the stomach for the fight to claw back market share.

Beer consultant Glenn Payne, formerly Safeway's beer buyer, says: "It's a category that should be storming away and I make the supermarkets the main culprits for

lack of imagination, laziness and for sucking value out of the category.

"'Local is good' is their mantra around the store, and that is laudable - but too many local beers are poorly crafted and fall within very narrow style ranges.

"There is a world of beers untouched by multiples that discerning British drinkers would love to see on the shelves. I'm surprised and disappointed no multiple has followed my lead at Safeway."



too many retailers "either slash the price to a level that doesn't reflect the true value, or have a permanent multi-save that customers tire of".

He adds: "If those good British brewers are being stiffed on price, where will the income for development, advertising and PR come from?"

Rupert Ponsonby is one of the founders of the Beer Academy, an organisation which hopes to do for beer what the Wine & Spirit Education Trust has done for wines and spirits. "Brewers are innovating more than ever ," he

says. "They are producing beers of infinitely more interesting styles, colours and flavours.

"But those selling these beers in shops or supermarkets often haven't sampled their range and haven't any materials to give them the soundbites they need to help them sell. So they don't know what the beers taste like, or what foods are best partners for them. And they can't advise their customers.

"So the customers choose what is cheapest or what they have bought before - ignorant of all the wonderful new flavours being produced. The

industry educates its off-trade wine sales force through the WSET. But it signally fails to use the Beer Academy to do the same for beer. Is the off-trade mad?"

Marston's director James Coyle is more upbeat about the way brewers and retailers are working together.

"Whil e the beer market in overall terms continues a slow decline due to many of the long-term socio-economic changes and short-term influences, there are areas


give brewers and retailers cause for continued optimism and investment," he maintains.

"Premium bottled ales in particular, which showcase the great variety of styles, flavours, seasonality and regionality from all corners of the UK, continue to grow. Consumer trends towards ≠localism, authenticity, taste and heritage are fulfilled by this category - and the future for beers

that are well produced and marketed looks good."

He adds: "Brewers and retailers are working closely together to make changes to the range of beers stocked, how they are merchandised and promoted, introducing guest and seasonal beer offerings and innovative styles and packaging solutions to tempt consumers into the category.


exciting to see such an increase in demand and interest from consumers for British beer, and with continued investment in marketing and product development 'old world ale' and 'new world lager' can have a happy future together."

Jim Helsby, owner of the York Beer & Wine Shop, says he has not noticed a downward trend in his beer sales. "Some minor seasonal fluctuations, OK - but nothing decisive," he says.

"The areas where my business is holding up well are in the UK bottled beer sector, particularly the quality end of the microbrewery market - after all, they aren't all brilliant - and in the local brewery department. There is increasing pressure to consider carbon footprints."

Helsby argues that "perhaps then brewers might consider emphasising their local or regional roots, rather than aiming for blanket national coverage", though he accepts "this isn't necessarily easy".

One of the biggest headaches for the industry is its public image. When beer is†discussed in the media, it's normally because slabs of lager are being sold cheaper than water in a supermarket - rarely because a critic is extolling the virtues of an interesting heffe weisse or lambic ale.

The lager lout is now an ingrained national stereotype. Consumers seem more confident

discussing coffee styles or grape varieties than the difference between a pilsner and a wheat beer. What proportion of beer drinkers have even the faintest idea what an India Pale Ale should be?

But it's not all doom and gloom. The UK has more brewers than at any time since the war - some admittedly better than others - and a band of enthusiastic, knowledgeable importers.

With a route to market, and some promotional activity that isn't centred entirely on price, the products from these sources could make the UK beer scene one of the most vibrant in the world.

The challenge is not to rebuild the category from scratch - simply to make the most of what is already there.

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